Inspired by Midcentury: Fenway Clayworks


Michele Racioppi


Docomomo US staff


Newsletter July 2019, Inspired by Midcentury
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Inspired by Midcentury: Fenway Clayworks is part 1 of a 5-part series featured in our July 2019 Special Edition newsletter.

Fenway Clayworks is the result of a lifelong interest in functional ceramics. Its founder, Sean VanderVliet has 20 years of experience as ceramicist, using his hands to craft and sculpt objects for the home. The objects he creates are rooted in design, simplicity, and function, and heavily influenced by architecture and his personal travels. The many places he has lived - Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and finally Colorado - have each contributed to his understanding of ‘place,’ and his aesthetic.   

Sean speaks to the subconscious influence design has on us, how we consume it daily without realizing it, and how that has manifested in his work.

The truth is I didn’t know anything about the lamps Aldo Landi made for Bitossi until after I started making some of my own. After doing a little homework and seeing the Bitossi forms, it was easy to recognize some of the same design elements, but more than anything it was motivation for me to keep making mine better. I’m never trying to mimic what someone has already done, I’m trying to make things that are a lot nicer and even more timeless, and I don’t say that in a negative way.



I don’t know any other potters that develop their pieces quite in the same way I do. A lot of my work is designed and made with very specific homes in mind. I’ll see a home online, or traveling in Palm Springs, for example, and make something that I think belongs inside that very home. This lamp was an example of that, I remember seeing an Eichler home designed by A. Quincy Jones and imagining the interior, then roughly coming up with this lamp idea in my head before finally getting home and making it. In that particular case the home had a bright orange door, and I was imagining this being just inside the door. I draw a lot of inspiration from Jones, Emmons, and Cliff May.



Alexander Girard is one of those people I didn’t realize I was influenced by until I knew who he was and how prevalent his work already was in my life. His application of color is just incredible, and glazing my pottery in the style that I do reminds me a lot of his work. The textiles in in this photo in particular I’m drawn to for the color patterns and geometry. These are things I’m thinking about constantly, like he clearly was. It took me years to figure out how to apply glazes in a way that got me the level of precision I wanted.



I often joke that my pottery is the opposite of your grandparents. It’s not ornate, not carved, or inscribed with messages or drawings. I’m focused on the simplicity of the form and letting that lead the way. In general, I want straight lines and obvious function in its lightest form, with design elements that are also simple, but provoking. Otto and Gertrud Natzler were the same way, and as a potter with an interest in mid-century modern design they are icons. This sake set is a good example of how function leads the way in my design process. There’s no handle on the sake pitcher because there doesn’t need to be. Less is more.  



This quote from Joseph Eichler in many ways sums up the philosophy behind my work. I only make things I would want in my own home, and trust that there are enough other people out there who will want those same things. So far that’s been true, and that makes it all worth it, because I wouldn’t keep doing this if I felt like I had to chase trends and passing fads. The goal is to create high quality items for the home that your grandkids will fight over someday.